First principles help to establish a base line to evaluate suggestions of reforms and to provide a base from which to build from. It may be that without a revolution, there is no opportunity to start from first principles. However, even in the midst of mild reform, time must be dedicated to analysis and evaluation in order to assess if the direction taken is correct.
For a labour law review, such as the one under way in Ontario, there are first principles – not in law, but in the terms of the labour movement – that need to be set to evaluate and set a way forward. Some principles of the labour movement are more easily agreed upon than others, but a reflection process should initiate discussion on what the labour movement sees as fundamental. One of the easiest ways to think about these first principles is by setting out these principles as rights for workers.
1. Right to free association and to organize into unions. Put simply, all other rights flow from the ability of free people to assemble, discuss common issues, and organize into structures that allow better expression of their collective power. Forming a labour union must be the right of every worker.
2. Right to workplace democracy. Unions often forget, at their peril, that one of the most important principles of a labour union is to bring democracy into the workplace. Workers must have a democratic say over their terms of work for bargaining to happen.
3. Right to withhold labour. Workers are not chained to their stations and therefore workers can refuse to work. It has been argued that the right to strike establishes all other labour rights.
4. Right to bargain terms of work. The strike exists as a tool to alter power relations. The strike is bargaining by other means when the diplomatic process has failed, and when the terms are still not satisfactory to those engaged in work.
5. Right to bargain over extracted surplus value. Under capitalism, profit is generated. Workers create the products and services that capitalists sell. As such, workers must not solely have the right to negotiate terms of their employment, but also to negotiate their piece of the profit.
6. Right to nonviolence. Workers must have the right to a space free from violence and harassment when it relates to work and association. True democracy cannot occur in an environment where outside factors undermine universal and full participation.
7. Right to democratic worker control over their association. Union democracy is essential to workplace democracy. Workers must be able to set union principles and incentives of the union’s structure. Union democracy is important to strengthen the connection between the union and its members to the exclusion of other forces such as the employer.
8. Right to establish institutional sustainability. Workers must have the right to set and collect dues. If dues remittance is undermined, then the union cannot fulfil the rights and needs of workers. However, this is also the right to not have responsibilities placed on a union that is unfunded.
*9. Right to engage in social justice advocacy and political participation beyond the bounds of the workplace through their association.* The right to union democracy means that workers can bring forward any and all discussions to their union including using their union’s resources outside of workplaces.
10. Right to build worker solidarity across workplaces. A workplace is the most likely starting place for free association, but workers may associate freely between different workplaces as well.
11. Right to inter-union solidarity. With free association and union democracy, workers must have the right to build connections and federations with other local unions.